Languages get simpler over the centuries, right?

After all, Spanish is simpler than Latin, isn’t it?

And modern English is surely simpler than old English.

So that proves it.

Or does it?

Well, no. There are at least two things that are wrong with the common claim that languages get simpler over time:

  • It’s not at all clear what “simpler” means. Yes, having one plural ending is simpler than having four, but how does having an ending compare with inserting a special word that denotes plurality? Having four vowel sounds is simpler than having 12, but is having clicks simpler than having tones?
  • My first two sentences at the beginning of this post mention Spanish and English, which are hardly representative of all seven thousand or so languages of the world. We need a larger and far more diverse sample.

So watch out. Remember that all generalizations are false 😃. And watch this video that explores the question of whether languages get simpler over time:

Categories: Linguistics